Meet Usha Pitts, Diplomat-in-Residence

m-usha-pitts For just over a decade, the City College of New York has held a privileged position among New York-area universities by hosting the Diplomat in Residence (DIR). Sponsored by the Department of State, the DIR spends two years on campus imparting their specific knowledge and experience as foreign service officers to students interested in foreign or civil service jobs, as well as various fellowships and internships through the State Department.

In addition to meeting with students for one-on-one advising and hosting informational sessions in the NY region (CT, NY, NJ, PA), the DIR also teaches a masters level class on foreign diplomacy exclusively through the Colin Powell School’s International Relations program.

Meet Usha Pitts, our incoming DIR. Here she introduces herself to the CCNY community, talks a bit about her foreign service career, and her new role as Diplomat in Residence. Connect with her on Facebook to get updates on scholarship applications, appointment hours, and events in your area.

You've lived in many countries in your adult life; where are you from originally?

I grew up in Acton, a middle class town outside of Boston. Even though it was the suburbs, we had enough land to raise chickens and goats. I also had a bunch of parakeets. My parents were an interracial couple, which was unusual in the 1970s, and especially for a town that was 98% white. I never felt uncomfortable in my home town, but I did start traveling at a young age and left high school early; I needed a bigger playground.

How did you come to work in the Foreign Service? Can you talk about your path to becoming the New York Metro Diplomat in Residence at City College?

Even though I look African American, I was named after my Mom’s friend, an Indian woman. I had never met “the real Usha,” so when I was 11, I traveled alone to India to meet her. That was a big trip for a sheltered girl from America’s suburbs: I saw street kids, polio victims with shriveled legs, beggars… I also caught some kind of tropical virus and was sicker (and closer to death) than I have ever been in my life. Well, when you’re 11, experiences like that can be more exciting than scary.

A few years later, when I was 16, I spent the summer building latrines in rural Mexico. And from there, I was hooked. I never stopped traveling. I took the Foreign Service Exam when I was 22, but didn’t pass, so I just kept traveling, working and studying until I eventually got in.

By then I was 28. In fact, most Foreign Service Officers are in their late 20s or early 30s when they join. The age requirement is only 18 years old, but most people need to get some life experience under their belt first. That’s why I always recommend that people join the Peace Corps or spend a few years in a professional career before joining the Foreign Service.

Where has your career with the Foreign Service taken you?

I’ve been a Foreign Service Officer for nearly 18 years, posted to Panama, Russia, Cuba, Italy, Austria, and most recently Brazil. I’ve had a different job in each country, from reporting on human rights abuses to promoting English education to helping Americans get visas for their adopted babies. The Foreign Service is a great career for people with short attention spans, because you change countries (and jobs) every couple of years. On top of it, you have to bumble your way through yet another foreign language.  You are constantly learning, always adjusting--and so is your family.

How do you approach your role as Diplomat in Residence? What most excites you about this role? What priorities are you setting for your time here?

In the past, the Foreign Service was a bastion for privileged, educated, east-coast men.  Even when women started joining the Foreign Service in greater numbers in the 1970s, they still had to resign their jobs if they got married. Things have changed, but we can do more to diversify our ranks.

These days, the State Department has 16 Diplomats in Residence scattered around the country. We work hard to reach people who wouldn’t necessarily consider joining the Foreign Service--Native Americans from the Midwest, Latinos growing up in Miami, Chinese-Americans from the West Coast, first-generation children of immigrants--people who didn’t necessarily grow up with a silver spoon in their mouths. We recognize that a good diplomatic corps has to represent the United States, and we can’t do that if we don’t reflect the diversity that makes our country great.

I cover New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania, but I rarely have to leave Manhattan--or even City College--to find the kinds of people we want to attract to the Foreign Service. After so many years abroad in weird situations, I feel very privileged to be here in New York with City College as my new home.

Partly in appreciation of City College, I would like to see one of our seniors or alumni get accepted to the Rangel Fellowship program this year. This fellowship offers $90k for graduate school, plus a five-year stint in the Foreign Service. The application deadline is February 3, so anybody interested in this fellowship should come see me!

What can students gain from working in the Foreign Service? 

There is the very obvious benefit, in that you get paid to see the world. (That’s why I wanted the job.) You also get free housing, good schools for your kids, and a pretty lavish lifestyle, given that an American salary goes a long way when you’re living abroad. As I got older, I also came to better appreciate the intangible benefits--serving my country, promoting American values, bringing attention to important global or local issues, and spending time with interesting and even courageous people. Few careers can offer that kind of fulfillment.